Cavolo!

Dear Reader,

As I told you in my previous post, since about a week I have been the happy owner of The Nordic Cookbook, a comprehensive ouvre I have fallen in love with.

Two great books in one place – The Nordic Cookbook and Anna Karenina.

The book boasts numerous merits which include but are not limited to its selection of simple recipes, its notes on the cultural background of dishes, plenty of observations by the author, minimalist food photographs, and photos of natural scenery, beautiful in that pale Nordic way that is almost an intellectual reflection. 

That’s a Bulgarian reflection, from the central Balkans this summer.

Nothing is more sophisticated than simplicity, remember? Boiled potatoes, basic meatballs, notes on boiling and steaming vegetables, making porridge, frying the perfect egg. The author is a renowned chef and a food purist, which makes him really qualified to instruct in basics. In addition, is is always a good thing to go over basics, it’s like warm-up prior to a workout, or playing scales and chords prior to playing music.

Going over the basics with raw goji berries. These grow in Bulgaria too, imagine.

I have always been bewildered by something I used to hear, not infrequently, among women my age when I was younger. It is that they couldn’t cook simple food but only complicated dishes. Funny, isn’t it? The complicated dishes are believed to somehow adding to the worth of the speaker, but to me this sounds as if saying “I don’t know how to dress well everyday, only on special occasions.”

Oh dear, this does bring back memories. This doll in styled folk clothing was a present I got from my favourite kindergarten teacher when I was about to start school. Its last whereabouts were in the village house described here. The house was sold in the 1.5 years since that post was written, so a real oblivion it is.

But of course, complicated/festive dishes are usually crowd-pleasers, make use of rich and palatable ingredients such as meat, chocolate, cream, cheese, or sugar, and rely on time-honoured taste chords to  work. The rich spices, sauces, dressings, or garnishes would surely cover up any potential problem in taste or texture, and would prevent the dish from being considered “bland”. Not exactly the same as everyday cooking, when one has to make do with whatever’s in the fridge, and can’t really be bothered with putting on shows, right?

Whatever’s in the fridge might be a handful of sorrel and little else. An egg, some flour and two spoonfuls of sour cream turn this into a soup. Groats and raw or steamed vegetables, nuts and fruit complete the menu.

Interest in complicated step-by-step recipes or videos is higher while it would take a really eccentric person to self-instruct themselves in basic things they’re sure they have, must have, totally mastered. The same with festive dressing. Sunday best, make up, a hairdo. Outfit may have been thought and bought as an ensemble. The same amount of care and preparation rarely goes into everyday dressing, which is why festive dressing is so very often proof of visible effort that is not exactly chic. 

A very simple thing to prepare when low on pantry stocks and time, is stewed cabbage. This is good by itself, can be used as a side dish, or might be cooked with meat directly in the pan. To prepare, you simply cut cabbage, place it is a pan, no oil, add about 1/3 glass of water and salt, cover, and let simmer for about 20 minutes.

The many photographs of cooked dishes are really very bare-bones, no decorations, no fancy crockery or objects artfully scattered around to enhance the colour scheme of the dishes. Rather, the dishes are arranged in groups and photographed from above in a way reminiscent of the current cooking fad of deconstructing. For an example of a picture of plates of porridge and gruel, see here. The message I get is this – cooking is about the ingredients, it is about essence, substance, and integrity, not about embellishments. Really, pictures like these make all the food porn one is so accustomed to see, look impossible, tiresome, and tasteless. 

Then you add some tomato paste thinned with another 1/3 cup, or less, water, and simmer some more. Spices to add are according to taste, but might include a bay leaf, or ground cumin, or whole caraway seeds. Beware of overcooking the cabbage though. I think when done it should still be a bit crunchy.

Now I will offer you a text sample from this wonderful book. It is an excerpt introducing cabbage recipes. I love cabbage, it is frugal, tasty, local, healthy, full of fiber, and with zero sugar content, which makes it perfect to pair with meat or groats. However, in Bulgaria at least, cabbage is associated with something lowly, rustic, tasteless, smelly and coarse. Few restaurants offer raw shredded cabbage salad as it is too cheap. Those that do often drown it in sunflower oil and vinegar. Others pair it with way too much sweet vinaigrette intended obviously to make up for its blandness. Cooked cabbage is usually treated with shocking disrespect, and turned into a lifeless mass sadly lying around the pork it usually accompanies.

Yet common Bulgarian culinary knowledge has it that cabbage has been grown in our lands since time immemorial. According to book The Russian Diet by Yulia Matyuhina, cabbage, very popular in Russia too, was cultivated by the ancient Greeks which passed it on to the peoples inhabiting the Southern Balkans. They, in turn, later passed it to the eastern Slavs around the Dnieper River. Something else I learned from that book is that quinoa was common in Russia in the Middle Ages too, and was used to make bread when rye was scarce. This brings me back to a lament I voiced in one of my previous posts – that many foods parading nowadays as healthy and coming from the other end of the world, are in fact forgotten foodstuffs that were common to us here too, before being ousted by monocultures and efforts at higher agricultural yields.  

Anyway, I love my cabbage raw with only salt and a bit of sesame tahini or raw sunflower seeds, or delicately stewed so that it remains crunchy.  So imagine my surprise and amusement when I read this short piece of pure cabbage poetry in The Nordic Cookbook: 

Cabbage redolent of cool summer mornings! I wish I had thought of that, 

Boryana

PS. A story on the restaurant run by  the author of The Nordic Cookbook, here, in Russian.